The Yiddish Photograph

What is Jewish Photography? What is Yiddish Photography?

The opening paragraphs of Alter Kacyzne’s The Strong and the Weak (newly translated by Mandy Cohen and Michael Casper in the 2016 Pakn Treger Translation Issue) are thick with detail. Kacyzne’s precise words make old Warsaw come alive—though “alive” doesn’t seem nearly the right word. What Kacyzne captures is the moment of decay, the weathering of buildings, the stagnation of Jewish life. It is an intensely visual description that invites us to see and notice and understand the implicit meaning of every nuance.

"Niches aren’t cut in the thick walls at the height of the first floor for no reason. Madonnas and saints stand in them, forged in their eternal watch. And no matter how old and neglected the walls, the Madonnas and saints gleam with the sky-blue colors of their freshly painted clothes, wearing fresh little crowns on their heads—a reward for their eternal watchfulness. People walk, shadows on the shadowy street. And if a beam of sun breaks through the high walls, then the whole street breaks up into sharp corners and crooked lines. It seemed the street was disintegrating. It seemed the shadow people were running as fast as they could to save themselves, in rings around the Old Marketplace, to be restored there under the bright sun."

It’s not surprising that Kacyzne writes for the mind’s eye. Alter Kacyzne was one of the most prominent Yiddish-speaking photographers. His photographs were published widely, and he spent years as a photo correspondent for the Forverts (Forward) newspaper. (An excellent digital collection of his photography is available through the YIVO archives.) This particular passage is remarkable not for its visual detail, but for its photographic detail. We see the interplay of light and dark (“a beam of sun . . . through the high walls”; “shadow people”) and the high contrast between the terminal and the eternal: the walls collapse, while the sacred statues gleam. Kacyzne’s words are a stand-in for his lenses and aperture.

Jewish photography has long been a subject of interest to scholars. David Shneer, professor of history and religious studies and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a frequent faculty member at the Center’s Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, wrote the brilliant book Through Soviet Jewish Eyes on Soviet Jewish military photographers during World War II. (You can learn more about the book in his interview with the Wexler Oral History Project.) In Pakn Treger 41 (Spring 2003), Alan Trachtenberg used the question “Is there a Jewish way in photography, a ‘Jewish eye’?” to untangle the thornier question of a Jewish sensibility in art. His essay is brilliant and nuanced, and intentionally leaves us with more questions than answers. (The essay is attached at the end of the post.)

Recently, however, scholars have started to ask a different question: is there a Yiddish photography? “Yiddish is a language,” Sam Spinner writes at In geveb. “So, can non-linguistic things—i.e. photography—be Yiddish? But here my one simple question becomes two complicated questions. First: why ask about the ‘Yiddishness’ of photography as opposed to its ‘Jewishness’? And second: why ask about photography, and not also painting, or architecture, or music?”

Spinner's perceptive article focuses on Moyshe Vorobeichic’s Yidishe gas in vilne (The Jewish Street/Neighborhood in Vilna) (1931). The book, available through our Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, is a book of photographs of pre-War Vilna. The images are stylized, and, like Kacyzne’s prose, marked by high contrast and the interplay of light and dark. The book is not quite reportage and not quite an artistic project. We are aware that we are seeing pictures of Jewish life in pre-war Vilna, but we are also aware that there is something not exactly forthcoming about what we see. Images are manipulated, whether by artistic means or by technical ones. It’s playful and witty, and some of this playfulness is profoundly Yiddish. The book has a Yiddish title page and a German title page; a Yiddish introduction and a German introduction; and the images have captions in both Yiddish and German. But Spinner persuasively argues that the book's proper orientation is right-to-left. One of the pictures, he tells us, is a visual pun on the Yiddish phrase dos pintele yid, the point/dot of a Jew. Here the Jew becomes the “dot” of an exclamation point. (1)

A visual pun on the Yiddish phrase "dos pintele yid" depicted a Jew as a dot in an exclamation point
From "Yidishe gas in vilne" by Moyshe Vorobeichic

At other moments, Vorobeichic’s photos are Yiddishized through their resonances and references.

Two Jews pondering a question by the gates of a courtyard in Vilna
From "Yidishe gas in vilne" by Moyshe Vorobeichic

The titles of this picture struck me immediately. The German reads Ein schweres Problem (A Difficult Problem) while the Yiddish reads May ko mashme lon?—a Talmudic phrase meaning, roughly, “What do we learn from this?” The German is descriptive: it explains that the man stroking his beard is pondering something. The Yiddish sacralizes this moment and makes it eternal: it becomes part of an endless, Jewish, textual discourse. But the Aramaic, Talmudic phrase doesn’t explain the other visuals of the composition. It doesn't explain the gate or the atmosphere. Instead, we’re invited to remember Avrom Reyzen’s 1917 song “May ko mashme lon,” which captures the lament of the poor Yeshiva student, whiling away his days. I look at the men in the bottom half of the photograph and I imagine the gate of the synagogue courtyard and I remember the song’s Prufrockian final stanza:

Say, what does it mean, my life?
Say, what does it make me hear?
In my youth, to rot and wither,
To grow old and disappear.
Eat in strangers’ homes in turn
Sleep on fists till they grow numb,
Killing This-World day by day,
Waiting for the World-to-Come

(Translation by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav)

Perhaps this quality—this ability to make a scene come to life through its evocations—is the quality that the Yiddish critic Zalmen Shneour had in mind when he wrote in his introduction to the book. : “Do in dize bilder iz reyne realitet, ober di trukenkayt fun fotografye, vos di kunst hot azoy faynt, iz do nito. Dos vos der rezhisor tut haynt mit a bine-shtik tsu ir forshtelung, dos iz geton gevorn mit di foto-kompozitsyes fun der yidisher gas.” (“Present in these images is pure reality; however the dryness of photography, which art despises, is absent. What the director today does to a theatrical work with its performance, that is done with these photo compositions of the Jewish street.”) In other words, both the director and the compositor take a static image and make it move.

Shneour’s introduction inspired me to look for other Yiddish material about photography in our collections. There aren’t many results. There is a story by Tsvi Eisenman (Tsvei Ayznman) called “The Photograph,” available both as text and as a part of an audiobook.

But the most curious book of/on photography in our collection is Mordkhe Spektor’s 1911 Moment-fotografyes: vi azoy shraybn di yudishe shriftshteler? (Momentary Photographs: How Do Jewish Authors Write?). Mordkhe Spektor (Mordecai Spector) was an important early publisher and editor of Yiddish prose, and he was close to the leading writers of his day, Peretz and Sholem Aleichem among them.

For Spektor, “momentary photographs” is both a metaphor and a mission. He wants to visually capture authors in the moment of their writing. But, like a “momentary photograph” (or, perhaps, Spektor has in mind a particular kind of photograph, a moment photograph, a picture that required only a minute-long exposure), the images that emerge are imprecise: “sometimes—more shadow, sometimes—more light, a little exaggerated [oversalted], a little underseasoned.”

A paragraph from Mordkhe Spektor's book "Moment fotografye."
A "photograph" from Mordkhe Spektor's "momentary photographs." The Yiddish orthography various significantly from the modern, YIVO standard. There are extra letters and Hebrew vowels.

Spektor’s book shines in the details. We learn that Mendele always needed to have a book of midrash, an edition of the Talmud, and the Tanakh with him as he wrote. We learn that Jacob Dinezon only wrote in the winter and that whenever he met someone during his writing periods, he felt the need to tell that person everything he had written that day. We learn that Ahad ha-am could only write in isolation, that he wrote at night, and that he wrote the whole night through—but we also learn that he required a neat, orderly desk with a fresh inkwell. And “af dem tish, vu er shraybt, tor zikh dan nit gefinen keyn ander zakh, nor der tinter, di pen, papir un di noytike bikher”—“nothing was permitted at the table where he wrote, save for his inkwell, his pen, paper, and the necessary books.”

It’s true that Moment-fotografyes engages us because it’s filled with these curiosities. But it also suggests an answer to a question we weren’t expecting: how did the camera change Yiddish writing? There may be stories in Moment-fotografyes, but there is no “Story.” For Spektor, the technology of the camera was an excuse to step out of narrative. Instead there is the roving, note-taking eye, pausing to record every object on the writing table and weigh its reasons for being there. It is the embrace of detail. In its own, sideways fashion, Moment-fotografyes helps us answer the question, how did Modernity change Yiddish writing?

—Eitan Kensky

(1) Spinner’s argument is actually more nuanced and intricate. “The Jew pictured in the image on the right-hand side is stooped by the vertiginous camera angle, and perhaps also by poverty. On the facing page the same image is scaled down and cut out to form the point of the exclamation mark: the pintele yid—stooped, standing in a puddle in the middle of goles (exile)—becomes the pintele exclamation.”